Pope John Paul II delivered his most powerful attack yet against President Fidel Castro’s government Saturday, urging the Roman Catholic Church to take “courageous and prophetic stands in the face of the corruption of political or economic power” and to promote human rights in Cuba.
With Castro’s brother, Raul, in the audience, the pontiff used the city revered as the birthplace of Castro’s Communist revolution as the pulpit for the strongest criticism he has launched at the government during his historic five-day visit to the isolated island nation.
The pope, who called for free expression, free initiative and free association, admonished the church to fight for “the recognition of human rights and social justice” and said its members “have the duty and the right to participate in public debate.”
“In this way, each person enjoying freedom of expression, being free to undertake initiatives and make proposals within civil society, and enjoying appropriate freedom of association, will be able to cooperate effectively in the pursuit of the common good,” the pope said.
Saturday’s Mass in Antonio Maceo Square drew the largest crowd of the papal trip thus far. More than 150,000 people endured searing heat to cheer his message, many having spent the night in bus convoys to reach this city on Cuba’s far eastern edge.
While the pontiff, 77, has not shied away from criticizing Castro - nor the nearly 36-year U.S. trade embargo against Cuba - in previous speeches and written messages, Saturday’s remarks were extraordinary in their candor and were amplified by the rich symbolism of the location he chose to deliver them.
“His words were marvelous,” said Benadicta Nunez Machado, 49, her face shielded from the blistering sun by a church-issued cardboard visor. “It is the best thing that has ever happened here. I hope it will bring change.”
Today, the pope is to offer the trip’s final Mass in Havana’s Plaza of the Revolution, which Castro has said he will attend. After meeting with Jewish leaders and a joint farewell appearance with Castro at Jose Marti International Airport, the pontiff will end the journey that New York Cardinal John J. O’Connor described Saturday as “one of the most important historical events in the last part of the 20th century.” O’Connor is among numerous U.S. cardinals and bishops in Cuba for John Paul’s visit.
Although the crowd politely applauded the pope’s calls for greater liberties, human rights and freedom of expression, Santiago Archbishop Pedro Meurice Estiu drew the most impassioned cheers when, in a direct assault on Castro’s government, he said, “We have some people who have confused patriotism with one party.”
And in another broadside referring to Cuba’s estimated 500 jailed political dissidents, he added, “The poorest among us are the ones who don’t have the precious gifts of freedom.”
His remarks, even more pointed than some of the pope’s, “amazed and pleased me,” said Cardinal James Hickey, head of the Washington archdiocese.
With each of the archbishop’s admonitions, the crowd burst into a sea of waving yellow-and-white Vatican flags.
Saturday’s service was delivered from a simple tent set against a statue of Maceo, depicted atop a muscular horse, and a stark monument of 16 massive metal blades, symbolizing the machetes used in the Spanish revolutionary wars.
The pontiff also paid homage to Cuba’s patron saint, the Virgin of Charity of El Cobre, “cobre” being a reference to the copper mines that once proliferated in this region of eastern Cuba. The 2-foot, gold-robed icon with a delicate face clutches a baby Jesus.
At the conclusion of the Mass, the pontiff placed a small crown of gold atop the statue’s head.
The throngs of onlookers became most exuberant when - in another first - the Madonna was paraded through the huge open plaza, mobbed by crowds seeking a glimpse of the revered figure.
Public display of religious icons was not permitted in Cuba until last year when, in anticipation of the pontiff’s visit, the government allowed a few churches to conduct modest parades of religious statues in small circles around their buildings. In many Latin American countries, parades of religious icons are integral parts of church ceremonies.
The pope returned to Havana Saturday night and visited lepers.
Earlier, four Massachusetts Democrats, led by Rep. Joe Moakley, met Saturday with four prominent Cuban dissidents, who said that political repression by Castro’s government continues, though it has eased recently.
Castro showed up unexpectedly at a Friday night reception for the congressmen held by Ricardo Alarcon, president of the Cuban parliament.
“Mr. Castro was expansive on the idea of freedom of religion,” Rep. William D. Delahunt said. “He indicated very frankly and very flatly that religions were going to flourish on the island of Cuba. There was nothing that he could do, or anybody wished to do, to put the genie back in the bottle.”